PRANA, BREATH, HEALTH AND LIFESTYLE
PRANA AND LIFESTYLE
Lifestyle has a profound impact on the pranamaya kosha and its pranas. Physical activities such as exercise, work, sleep, intake of food and sexual relations, all affect the distribution and flow of prana in the body. Faculties of the mind such as emotion, thought and imagination affect the pranic body even more. Irregularities in lifestyle, dietary indiscretions and stress, deplete and obstruct the pranic flow. This results in what people experience as being 'drained of energy'. Depletion of energy in a particular prana leads to the devitalisation of the organs and limbs it governs and ultimately to disease or metabolic dysfunction. The techniques of pranayama reverse this process, energising and balancing the different pranas within the pranamaya kosha. Pranayama practices should be performed after asana in an integrated yoga programme.
BREATH, HEALTH AND PRANAYAM
The breath is the most vital process of the body. It influences the activities of each and every cell and, most importantly, is intimately linked with the performance of the brain. Human beings breathe about 15 times per minute and 21,600 times per day. Respiration fuels the burning of oxygen and glucose, producing energy to power every muscular contraction, glandular secretion and mental process. The breath is intimately linked to all aspects of human experience.
Most people breathe incorrectly, using only a small part of their lung capacity. The breathing is then generally shallow, depriving the body of oxygen and prana essential to its good health. The first five practices given in this section are preparatory techniques which introduce correct breathing habits. In addition, they help focus the awareness on the breathing process, which is otherwise normally ignored. Practitioners develop sensitivity to the respiratory process and retrain the muscles of the pulmonary cavity, enhancing their vital capacity and preparing them for pranayama.
Rhythmic, deep and slow respiration stimulates and is stimulated by calm, content states of mind. Irregular breathing disrupts the rhythms of the brain and leads to physical, emotional and mental blocks. These, in turn, lead to inner conflict, imbalanced personality, disordered lifestyle and disease. Pranayama establishes regular breathing patterns, breaking this negative cycle and reversing the process. It does so by taking control of the breath and re-establishing the natural, relaxed rhythms of the body and mind.
Although breathing is mainly an unconscious process, conscious control of it may be taken at any time. Consequently, it forms a bridge between the conscious and unconscious areas of the mind. Through the practice of pranayama, the energy
trapped in neurotic, unconscious mental patterns may be released for use in more creative and joyful activity.
BREATHING AND LIFE SPAN
In addition to influencing the quality of life, the length or quantity of life is also dictated by the rhythm of the respiration. The ancient yogis and rishis studied nature in great detail. They noticed that animals with a slow breath rate such as pythons, elephants and tortoises have long life spans, whereas those with a fast breathing rate, such as birds, dogs and rabbits, live for only a few years. From this observation they realised the importance of slow breathing for increasing the human lifespan. Those who breathe in short, quick gasps are likely to have a shorter life span than those who breathe slowly and deeply. On the physical level, this is because the respiration is directly related to the heart. A slow breathing rate keeps the heart stronger and better nourished and contributes to a longer life. Deep breathing also increases the absorption of energy by the pranamaya kosha, enhancing dynamism, vitality and general well being.
PRANAYAM AND THE SPRITUAL ASPIRANT
Pranayama practices establish a healthy body by removing blockages in the pranamaya kosha, enabling an increased absorption of prana. The spiritual seeker, however, also requires tranquillity of mind as an essential prelude to spiritual practice. To this end, many pranayama techniques utilise kumbhaka, breath retention, to establish control over the flow of prana, calming the mind and controlling the thought process.
Once the mind has been stilled and prana flows freely in the nadis and chakras, the doorway to the evolution of consciousness opens, leading the aspirant into higher dimensions of spiritual experience. In The Science of Pranayama, Swami Sivananda writes, "There is an intimate connection between the breath, nerve currents and control of the inner prana or vital forces. Prana becomes visible on the physical plane as motion and action, and on the mental plane as thought.
Pranayama is the means by which a yogi tries to realise within his individual body the whole cosmic nature, and attempts to attain perfection by attaining all the powers of the universe."
GENERAL NOTES FOR PRACTITIONER
In the traditional texts, there are innumerable rules and regulations pertaining to pranayama. The main points are to exercise moderation, balance and common sense with regard to inner and outer thinking and living. However, for those who seriously wish to take up the advanced practices of pranayama, the guidance of a guru or experienced teacher is essential.
Breathing: Always breathe through the nose and not the mouth unless specifically instructed otherwise. The nose should be cleaned regularly by jala neti prior to the practice session. Be aware of the nostrils throughout the techniques. While inhaling, the nostrils should dilate or expand outwards and while exhaling, they should relax back to their normal position.
Time of practice: The best time to practise pranayama is during the early morning when the body is fresh and the mind has very few impressions. If this is not possible, another good time is just after sunset. Tranquillising pranayamas may be performed before sleep. Try to practise regularly at the same time and place each day. Regularity in practice increases strength and willpower as well as acclimatising the body and mind to the increased pranic force. Do not be in a hurry; slow, steady progress is essential.
Place of practice: Practise in a quiet, clean and pleasant room which is well ventilated but not draughty. Generally, avoid practising in direct sunlight, as the body will become over-heated, except at dawn when the soft rays of the early morning sun are beneficial. Practising in a draught or wind, in air-conditioning or under a fan may upset the body temperature and cause chills.
Sitting position: A.comfortable, sustainable meditation posture is necessary to enable efficient breathing and body steadiness during the practice. Siddha/siddha yoni asana is one of the best postures for pranayama. The body should be as relaxed as possible throughout the practice with the spine, neck and head erect. Sit on a folded blanket or cloth of natural fibre to ensure the maximum conduction of energy during the practice.
Sequence: Pranayama should be performed after asanas and before meditation practice. After practising pranayama one may lie down in shavasana for a few minutes.
Clothes: Loose, comfortable clothing made of natural fibres should be worn during the practice. The body may be covered with a sheet or blanket when it is cold or to keep insects away.
Bathing: Take a bath or shower before commencing the practice, or at least wash the hands, face and feet. Do not take a bath for at least half an hour after the practice to allow the body temperature to normalise.
Empty stomach: Wait at least three to four hours after meals before starting pranayama. Food in the stomach places pressure on the diaphragm and lungs, making full, deep respiration difficult.
Digestion: When commencing pranayama practice, constipation and a reduction in the quantity of urine may be experienced. In the case of dry motion, stop taking salt and spices, and drink plenty of water. In the case of loose motion, stop the practices for a few days and go on a diet of rice and curd or yoghurt.
Diet: A balanced diet of protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals is suitable for most pranayama practices. A combination of grains, pulses, fresh fruit and vegetables, with a little milk product if necessary, is recommended. The more advanced stages of pranayama require a change in diet and a guru should be consulted for guidance on this.
Avoid strain: With all pranayama practices it is important to remember that the instruction not to strain, not to try to increase your capacity too fast, applies just as it does to asana practice. If one is advised to practise a pranayama technique for a specific length of time, before moving on to a more advanced practice or ratio, it is wise to follow that instruction. Furthermore, breath retention should only be practised for as long as is comfortable. The lungs are very delicate organs and any misuse can easily cause them injury. Not only the physical body but also the mental and emotional aspects of the personality need time to adjust. Never strain in any way.
Side effects: When practising for the first time, various symptoms may manifest in normally healthy people. These are caused by the process of purification and the expulsion of toxins. Sensations of itching, tingling, heat or cold and feelings of lightness or heaviness may occur. Such experiences are generally temporary but if they persist during the practice, check with a yoga teacher.
Contra-indications: Pranayama should not be practised during illness, although simple techniques such as breath awareness and abdominal breathing in shavasana may be performed. Always consult a yoga therapist or teacher before using any pranayama for therapeutic purposes.
No smoking: It is not advisable for pranayama practitioners to smoke tobacco or cannabis.